The Washington Nationals gave their bullpen some finishing touches at the trade deadline Monday, acquiring 2017 all-star Brandon Kintzler from the Minnesota Twins in exchange for Class A left-hander Tyler Watson and international bonus pool money.
Kintzler, a free agent in 2018, allowed 14 earned runs in 45 1/3 innings (for a 2.78 ERA) en route to 28 saves for the Twins this season, giving Nationals Manager Dusty Baker another reliable reliever to join former Oakland A’s pitchers Ryan Madson and Sean Doolittle in an effort to bolster one of the worst bullpens in the majors.
“It gives me options. As a manager, you like to have as many options as possible,” Baker told reporters Monday. “It’s a continual experiment depending on how guys do. The better a guy performs, the more I can slide him into a certain place.”
Kintzler took over as the Twins’ closer in June 2016, converting 45 of his 52 save opportunities since the promotion, but it’s the lack of fanfare that gives some pause for concern — he isn’t a strikeout pitcher compared with some of the other closers around the majors. Among the 29 pitchers with 10 or more saves this year, Kintzler ranks last in strikeout rate, at 14.8 percent, but that appears to be part of his strategy.
“My plan to attack hitters in the ninth inning, I think that works well,” said Kintzler, who credited Twins bullpen coach and former closer Eddie Guardado for his success as a reliever over the past two years. “I know everyone likes strikeouts, but, you know, sometimes strikeouts lead to walks, and I was just all about just attacking the hitters, and it worked well for me in that situation, so we’ll see what happens.”
Kintzler relies primarily on his sinker to attack hitters, throwing the pitch almost three-quarters of the time to batters on both sides of the plate.
Because his slider has a low spin rate (1,986 rpm on average, fourth lowest among pitchers throwing it at least 300 times this season) with more than eight inches of horizontal movement, it is difficult to make solid contact (average exit velocity of 86.1 mph compared to a league average of 87.6 mph), resulting in a groundball more than half the time (56.3 percent) — a welcome sight for a team that leads the league in home runs allowed by its relievers per nine innings pitched (1.5).
His slider gets featured when he gets ahead in the count to a right-handed batter, often using the pitch with two strikes. It’s not Kintzler’s most effective pitch — right-handed batters are 5 for 16 (.313) against it with five strikeouts — but he’s allowed just one extra-base hit, a double, at its expense so far this season.
The overall result is a reliever who has allowed seven runs fewer than expected after taking into account men on base and outs left in the inning (7.03 RE24), a better mark than anyone in the Nationals’ bullpen before the trade. Kintzler has also been more valuable to his team, regardless of the leverage (0.55 WPA/LI), than any of Washington’s relievers this season save Oliver Perez (0.58 WPA/LI).
Updated rest-of-season projections have Washington’s bullpen providing 2.5 wins above replacement leading up to the playoffs, tied for the fourth most in the majors with the New York Yankees and Toronto Blue Jays but behind the Los Angeles Dodgers (4.5 fWAR), Cleveland Indians (3.7 fWAR) and Colorado Rockies (3.7 fWAR). Their chances of winning the World Series, however, dropped slightly from 10.5 percent right after the all-star break to 9.9 percent entering Tuesday night’s games.
Fancy Stats: Winners and losers at the MLB trade deadline